The Afghan branch of the jihadist group may turn its guns on its Pakistani counterpart in order to preserve safe havens across the border.
Taliban factional clash looms on horizon
KARACHI // Pakistani and Afghan factions of the Taliban could soon face each on the battlefield in Pakistan's North Waziristan and South Waziristan tribal agencies, militant commanders said. The surreal prospect of Taliban-on-Taliban warfare follows an ongoing upsurge in attacks on Pakistan army and paramilitary units in the two agencies bordering Afghanistan, both of which are used as safe havens by the Afghan Taliban. Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the largest Pakistani Taliban faction, has claimed responsibility for the attacks, and a parallel wave of suicide bombings on security and civilian targets in Pakistani cities. Militant commanders said the attacks defy repeated orders from Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Afghan Taliban overlord, not to antagonise the Pakistani military into launching a Swat-like military operation in South Waziristan, the mountainous areas that are Mr Mehsud's stomping grounds. The commanders said Mullah Omar has lost patience with Mehsud's defiance and asked Jalaluddin Haqqani, the commander of the potent Haqqani network faction of the Afghan Taliban, to "resolve the situation". Mr Haqqani, a veteran of the Afghan resistance struggle against Soviet occupation in the 1980s, has since issued an ultimatum to Mr Mehsud, warning him to cease operations against the Pakistani state, the sources said. "He has told Baitullah to desist or face punitive action from Sirajuddin [Mr Haqqani's son]," said an Afghan Taliban commander, who identified himself only as "Ghaznavi", indicating his birthplace as Ghazni in Afghanistan. Sirajuddin is based in North Waziristan agency where, because of the respect his father commands among militants, he has been dubbed "Khalifa Sahib", or Caliph. He has used that status in the past to keep the peace between Pakistani Taliban factions and the military, most famously in 2006 when he helped mediate a treaty in the two Waziristans that has held to date. Taliban sources said Sirajuddin leads a militia of some 7,000 seasoned Afghan fighters - less than half the manpower, including an estimated 3,000 foreign al Qa'eda militants, under Mr Mehsud's command. However, a prospective alliance with Haji Nazeer and Hafiz Gul Bahadur, the two leading Wazir tribe commanders respectively based in South and North Waziristan, would almost balance the battlefield equation, Taliban sources said. Both Wazir commanders have sat on the sidelines amid rising conflict in the two tribal agencies, partially because of pressure from the Afghan Taliban leadership, but also because they want to prevent the human suffering invariably caused by military operations, tribal elders in South Waziristan said. Haji Nazeer, the more powerful of the two, is reliant on the support of the Zekikhel clan, the largest clan of the Wazir tribe, because of his humble personal origins, but could easily lose it in the event of conflict with the Pakistani military. Conflict would invoke punitive action by the Pakistan army against the clan under the Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR), a law that tasks tribes with collective responsibility for security in their territory, said the elders, who spoke on condition of anonymity, quoting security concerns. Recent retaliatory military actions in the two Waziristan agencies and the neighbouring Bannu frontier region, particularly following the kidnapping of dozens of cadet college students earlier this month, have led to many collateral deaths. However, the Haqqani network's ultimatum to Mr Mehsud has yet to translate into a call to arms being issued to the Wazir commanders, because Mullah Omar dreads the prospect of a fratricide that could severely undermine the insurgency against Nato forces in Afghanistan, associates of Mr Nazeer said. That dread prompted the Afghan Taliban leader to mediate in March an end to two years of fighting between Mr Mehsud, backed by Mr Bahadur, and Mr Nazeer, over the former's granting of sanctuary to foreign al Qa'eda militants. But while Mr Nazeer continues to oppose Mr Mehsud's warmongering, he is equally perturbed by the switch in tactics from reconciliatory to zero tolerance by the military, following the breakdown of the Swat peace accord, tribal elders said. Mr Nazeer has refrained from launching revenge attacks, as has been his strategy in the past, but he may quietly have nudged an ally, Commander Malang, to mount a blockade in the Makeen area of South Waziristan that has prevented army units from moving into Mr Mehsud's mountainous stronghold, elders said. The military responded with artillery fire and aerial bombing raids that killed an estimated 15 militants on Saturday - a move that has pushed the area a step closer to outright conflict, a military spokesman said. The rising tensions have prompted Shahab Ali Shah, the head of the political administration, to travel to Wana, the capital of South Waziristan, for negotiations with Mr Nazeer, which are being conducted through Wazir tribal elders as stipulated by the FCR law. The government's use of traditional means of negotiation gives social legitimacy to anti-militant operations that might otherwise have been opposed on grounds of tribal loyalty - a successful example being a tribal milita's ongoing campaign against Swat militants in neighbouring Dir. It is likely that the Pakistan government's latest round of negotiations with Waziristan's tribal leaders will provide cover for the Haqqani Network's impending campaign against Mr Mehsud. firstname.lastname@example.org